Friday, December 2, 2016

Baldwin in the age of idiocy

I am a writer. I am a student of literature. Criticism. Essay. Beautiful words stitched together for the enlightenment and enjoyment of the soul. Shakespeare. Mankiewcz. Morrison. Gore. Naylor. Massey. Wolcott. Mamet. Parker. Kafka. Parks. Adichie. Last names that don't need first names because if you know them you know their light and their power. These are the people I read. And love. And envy. And adulate. I try to mingle my voice with theirs to little success. But I try.

"The inky blackness of the subway tunnel whooshed by the windows. The expression on the  masses of people's faces were of passive exasperation. Their collective nonchalance did not soothe Aldrea Highline's apprehension. "
It took two weeks to write those three sentences for my first novel "Solstice". Not because I was lazy but because I wanted them to carry a specific image. A perfect image. To convey my exact thoughts. That's how important words and information are to me. Unfortunately words no longer matter.

We have reached a point of complete lunacy. Where anarchic monsters have taken over our airways and radiowaves and books. These feral creatures seek out and root away fact. They devour it and regurgitate bullshit leaving a fecal trail of disinformation all over the place. A few nights ago Trevor Noah, the young political comedian, hosting The Daily Show interviewed conservative firebrand, Tomi Lahren. It was like watching Dick Cavett wrestle a pig.

Discourse and wit have been replaced with yelling and obstinance. Ms. Lahren just flexed her considerably loud, obnoxious opinion and the right-wing media hailed it as victory. She wasn't/ isn't funny, clever, colorful or graceful. She's rapacious and her voice is as cloyingly annoying as Lesley Ann Warren's Norma in "Victor/ Victoria" with none of the character's charm.

Lahren and Noah are not equally yoked. He's good but he's no Baldwin. The bigger problem is she's no Buckley. When James Baldwin stepped onto the podium to thunderous applause at Cambridge Union in 1965 to debate William F. Buckley, his opening remarks were about perception. How the perception of America was different for Black People than it was for white. That between these bits of nuance lies the true heart of the problem. But nuance no longer seems to exist. We now live in a world of bluntness and primary colors. Of tribalism and nihilism. Where the din of name calling has erased the true rightenous of civic duty by letting people say "Well both sides are wrong."

No both sides are not wrong. It's not just impolite to create facts and false evelancies. Its not just hearsay its sedition to truth. We have seen this behavior metasize over the years. First with reality TV bleeding into our lives. Where bad behavior became tolerable. Then we saw it in our news rooms, where journalism was treated like entertainment. Where investigative reporters were fired and replaced with pretty, neutral, good-looking automatons that just paraphrased what this candidate said at this event without context. Then it invaded our politics. And that's where we are today. We no longer debate how to fix a problem. We have one side just screaming and insulting the other side and telling them racism nor climate change nor police brutality is a real thing. We have campaign managers saying to audiences without the slightest hint of a lie that there was no white supremacist involved in the presidential campaign she managed, all the while the person in question admitted in an interview to having ties with white supremacist.

So there you have it. The discussion is stymied before it can start. Not because Tomi Lahren can shut down Trevor Noah with facts and repartee. But because even at his best he can't penetrate her ignorance because it's embedded on a grandular level and we have started to reward the loudest, most obnoxious kid in the class instead of the smartest. Adolph Hitler once wrote "Der Sieger wird nie gefragt, ob er die Wahrheit gesagt habe."

"The victor will never be asked if he told the truth."

Friday, August 26, 2016

The ghosts of two cities

I don't want to be hyperbolic and use death as symbolism, but being a full-time caregiver for a parent suffering from dementia is death-like. It's a task I tell people all the time not to enter into lightly. Alzheimer's is a creeping, evil bitch. It desaturates life. It turns your world from a vivid RGB palette into a barren greyscale landscape. Not with a quick mouse-click, but with a long simmering reduction. Once you get past the shock of the diagnoses--a pot of boiling water you know you must thrust your hand into to retrieve a necessary item. You look at it percolating, frightened and in denial, but knowing the truth is in that hot pot. A pot you must throw yourself headlong into--you have to then learn to live with the disease. It's not like in the movies either, where actors portrait valiant struggles of defiance, as they lose touch with reality surrounded by loving spouses or troubled children.  In truth, dementia is more insidious than that. It's a disease of banality. You just sit and wait. Watching. Like a lock in a canal slowly draining of water as it lowers your boat further down. It's doctor visits and food preparation and bed-making and prescription refills and trips to social services. It's bill paying and drool wiping and toileting and doctor's visits and food preparation and bed-making and prescription refills...well you get the picture.

You become a ghost.

At first things are fine. You stay in touch with friends. You speak frequently on the phone. You laugh at things that just happened to you last week. The gossip is hot and fresh, because you know all the players. But then slowly they pull away from you and before you know it, the only thing you have to laugh about are things in the past. There are no more new memories with your friends. There are no more Sunday afternoon debriefs about the bar last night. There's no more new discoveries in the city of a tucked-away Persian restaurant with a cute waiter. It's no more impromptu brunches at a friend's house. No more flirtatious summer evenings sitting outside in the park. No more gatherings where you sit around and throw shade and argue over who is the Samantha of the group--I was always Carrie, which I didn't mind because I'm a writer with a shoe fetish. Or repeat lines from the Golden Girls over Ketel One-cranberries. No more meeting up at the gym where that one friend tries to tell you how to do squats but you remind them they are not a personal trainer. New memories are being made but you're just not included in them.

Now you listen as they tell stories of those adventures and soon the names change and you find yourself a bit lost. You say "Now who is that? Do I know him?" and there is a pause and they say "No, you don't know him? He came after you left."

You start to feel locked in place. Caught in time; because they have moved on and you haven't. Their kids graduate high school and you're not there to congratulate. They get promoted on their jobs and you're not there to celebrate. They meet "the one", fall in love, fall out of love, break-up and you're not there to commiserate. You become further out of step and out of time. Then you start wondering to yourself will you ever be able to catch up. They are so far ahead of you now and it's as if you are not even in the same space-time with them. You sit from day-to-day watching your parent, a sentinel.

I can only speak to my mother about the past. She has relatively no memory of the present. So to the life of a caretaker becomes rooted in the past. Just yesterday I was speaking to her about Omar Khayyám's  famous poem.

“The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.”

Then she started asking for her dead relatives and I wondered what my friends were doing.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Blood, Death and Blackness

Blood, Death and Blackness
I see all around me
Gory phantasms that can't be real
Dead eyes, open mouths
Wounded bodies in pain

Black children crying
as Black mother's read from scripts
written by a history of violence
against Black Women
Through the murder of their children

Graves dug open
to receive Black bodies whose
flesh was ripped open for
no apparent reason other than
it was Black flesh

Blackness so black that all
they see is black but they
don't see the red that we see
when we see the blood
another Dead Black person

They shoot, we die
They investigate, we cry
We burn and they turn
our pain against us as
They live, we don't

Friday, March 25, 2016

The fear of everything

When I was a small child, probably 7 or 8 or so I would love to go to Zayre's Department store with my mother. Zayre's was a generic low end retailer that sold cheap goods like depictions of White Jesus in plastic gold frames along side bags of tube socks and polyester moo moos that every grandmother in North Carolina wore in the 70s. While my mother would do her shopping she would let me hang out in the toy aisle. All. By. Myself. That's right. An 8 year old kid, unattended, in a store, with his mother wandering on the other side leisurely picking up items she didn't need. I never left the toy aisle--well I did once and got lost in the tire department (to this day the smell of rubber brings about an uncontrolled panic) but a nice employee used the PA system to call my mother, which made me feel special to the point every time thereafter, I would ask the lady to call my name so I could hear it over the loud speakers. What? I like attention. But my mother would always come back and find me. Safe and content.

The world of the 70s was really dangerous for children. We were allowed to leave home, on our bikes, and pedal to the candy store down the street. We were left unsupervised to play with cousins and neighbors, to create our own island in the Pacific, were we hunted wild boar and jumped off the garage with towels tired around our necks. We had toys that could kill us. I had a Tonka Toy jeep that was made of real metal. I had broken the roof off and the four remaining spikes were razor sharp. I could've put out an eye had I tripped running with that thing. We had sheets that would burn us alive; we had cribs made with lead paint. We constantly inhaled gasoline fumes that were toxic. We had parents and siblings who would do us bodily harm while neighbors turned a blind eye. We didn't have car seats (hell we didn't even use seat belts). We didn't have teachers or student resource officers watching for signs of abuse, we didn't have Nancy Grace. There were real live perverts in white vans. There were real men dressed like clowns. It was a scary time. I write this without nostalgia. WIthout sentimentality. That was just the world of my childhood. 

We live in a very different world today. For the last forty years we have been told, first by politicians, then by nightly news anchors, followed by anecdotes at church and the barbershop and finally by social media that our world is too dangerous for children to be left alone in it. It doesn't matter that child abductions are at historic lows. It doesn't matter that we have a child care system overzealously removing children from their parents. The perception--which is reality to most--is that our children need protection from evil. All. The. Time. If you let your child out of your sight for just a split second you are a bad parent. If you let your child walk to the store by himself you may be arrested for child neglect. If a school official sees a bruised arm you are investigated for abuse. Children can't play with children they don't know. Our children's lives have become regimented. A quotidian of scheduled play dates and soccer practice. Parents are constantly living in fear. Fear that something bad will happen to them or their children. This fear is irrational of course.

So it doesn't surprise me that when Charlotte passed an ordinance that would allowed transgendered individuals to use the restroom of their chosen gender that people would frenzy before or without any thought over it. As if come April 1, 2016, when the ordinance would become law, that men dressed in cheap wigs and bad pumps would be drooling at every Ladies Room entrance at the mall. These fears were always telescoped toward women and little girls as if Patriarchy was the calvary riding in to save them from a gorilla on the Rue Morgue. It didn't matter than 8 other cities in North Carolina had similar laws in place and they had been enacted without incident. It didn't matter that many other cities and states in the country had similar laws in place and there had been no indications that child molestation or rape in public bathrooms had skyrocketed. It didn't matter that child abduction or "stranger danger" was at an all time low. It didn't matter that your child is more likely to be sexually abused by one of your own family members or a person that he or she knows and NOT by a unknown person in a public place. Actually statistics have proven that public facilities like restrooms are far more dangerous for transgendered people than the people who are using the facility with them. So the state of North Carolina acted in fear and created a wide-ranging law that neither protects women and children nor the special groups it claims it does. Indeed it makes it more dangerous for those same groups by making it harder for People of Color and members of the LGBT community to sue for discrimination.


I think the saddest thing is that we have acquiesced to fear in this country. So much so that we can no longer see each other as human beings. So much so that we can't even be rational. We hear transgender-slash-bathroom and we are ready to kick somebody's ass if they touch my child when the likelihood of that happening is zero. We have given into fear for our jobs so we want to kick Mexicans out; fearful of our religion so we want to kick gays out; fearful of our freedom that we want to kick Muslims out; fearful of our own prejudices that we want to kick Black Lives Matter protesters out. So fearful for our families that the thought of having to share a bathroom with a man or women (you probably wouldn't even recognize as being their original sex anymore) so interminably frightening we want them out too. What this does is create tribalism. The more I am fearful of your tribe, the less empathetic I am to your tribe's plight. So we sit back in fear and watch the rights of our fellow Americans being eroded. What we don't realize is that the same fear is eroding us too.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Mask of the Yellow Hair

With the Iowa caucuses just a few days away we are in full-fledged presidential election season. I've been noticing a lot of my Facebook friends posting memes that compare Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler and while I think most of them are funny here's the problem I have with these images:

By comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler we're creating the mistaken notion that evil can't reside in the heart of the United States. That somehow fascism or authoritarianism is an alien ideology infecting a country that advertises full throated exceptionalism and broadcasts an image of bootstrapping materialism to the rest of the world. These images prove that only a foreigner like Adolf Hitler can rise to power in a foreign country like Germany. That Trump's very ideals are foreign. But Donald Trump is no aberration. Donald Trump and his blowhard attitude with his reductive views of immigrants and religion are as American as baseball and apple pie.

We often hear those who support and attend Donald Trump's rallies say that their favorite candidate is only speaking what others won't say. That he is speaking his mind. They are actually telling the truth. Many politicians both left and more so on the right use coded language to signal to voters what they are really saying. So instead of Republicans talking about border security, Donald Trump comes right out and says he thinks Mexicans are rapists and criminals and we should build a fence to keep them out. Instead of using terms like urban crime or entitlement programs, Donald Trump tweets that he thinks African Americans are lazy and violent. Where once national security and terrorism were buzzwords, he openly talks about spying on mosques and banning Muslims from entering the United States. After he says these outrageous things his popularity sores and cable news pundits become apopletic at what they consider an abomination; an afront to American ideals. That Trump is ultimately a cipher who has tricked the masses with his Pied Piper words or that he's touched on the zeitgest of an uneducated working class anger.

The cable pundits are wrong. Racism and xenophobia has existed in the United States much longer than this notion of diversity and equality. Donald Trump is no aberration. He's no fluke. What was a fluke was a biracial man who considers himself African American being elected President of the United States. Twice. That was a fluke. A rich old white man who spouts racist, xenophobic, anti-muslim, authoritarian, mysogonistic, pro capitalistic rhetoric is an every day occurance somewhere in America. So maybe the face underneath the Donald Trump mask is not Hitler. Maybe the face underneath the mask of America is Donald Trump and the millions who agree with him.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe freedom of the press

So CNN suspends a reporter for correctly tweeting out that by passing a bill that would refuse to allow Syrian and Iraqi refugees into the country without more extensive vetting (as if that isn't already being done) that the Statue of Liberty would hang her head in shame. Of course after the tweet came the cries of liberal media bias from the right bouncing against cries from the left about CNN's spotty track record when it comes to truth in reporting. This claim of one-sidedness in the media isn't new. The Republican party has turned the notion of liberal bias into a powerful messaging apparatus that ensures the masses of right-leaning voters will only trust rightwing sources. So propaganda becomes the news. The problem with this model is that it doesn't speak to the real truth. That there is no liberal or conservative bias in the news. There's only an American bias.

Most Americans go through life with the sublime unawareness of our country's actions abroad. We live in a sugarcoated world of football and Jerry Springer; where politicians make proclamations that we are the greatest country on earth. That we are the only country with a truly free democracy and our press is the gold standard of reporting. The reality is much different. Or at least the perception of it by many people across the world is. America is bold. We like big things. Big houses, big roads to drive our big cars. We like swagger and grandiloquence. We eat red meat and freedom fries. We shoot guns. We wave our flags and religion (only Christianity and mostly the Protestant ones) and never once do we think that maybe we are the Sword of Domocles with a tenuous string of petulance holding that sword in place. We hate details in America. As long as it said in brash tones it doesn't matter how off-kilter it is.

Most of us get our news from cable, or Facebook or Smoke down at the barbershop or Randy at the parts store. Mrs. Falls at the bake sale said "the blacks" were taking over her neighborhood. Uncle Roch (short for Rochester) said he'd never met a Jew or a Aye-Rab that he could trust. These statements may sound outlandish to read but they are cornerstones of family gatherings and small talk after church. And our news media does nothing to disabuse us of our prejudices. Against one another or against the world at large.

We're taught in school that slavery began sometime hundreds of years ago. Then there was the Civil War (that had nothing to do with slavery though it did end it) and then there was Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech followed by the election of Barack Obama. But what we are not taught was that connective tissue between those milestone events. We are not taught about generational chattel slavery that lasted 246 years. We're not taught that Black women were bred like cattle having dozens of babies before their bodies died. We're not taught about how brutal American apartheid was or how--even after serving their country hundreds of Black soldiers were lynched and killed, mainly in the South and Mid-West, after WWII. We're not taught about the persecution of the Black Power movement of the 1970s. We just skip along from point-to-point not worrying about the fine print. And the media has become increasing culpable in keeping us ignorant.

If you ask the average American what is ISIS they will correctly reply its a terrorist organization. When you ask them how they came to be the answers becomes murkier. Its because we don't see those dots, hidden behind the hubris and debris of political discourse. We see 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and the Rise of ISIS--always reported with a fanfare of somber music evoking heroes and villains as if in a movie. The news has become so theatrical. It's like we're living in an Orwellian dystopia where we're told "TODAY WE FIGHT THE TALIBAN"--without irony and with the full knowledge that most Americans don't know we helped the Taliban come to power in the first place. So when I hear many conservatives on Facebook parrot what Dr. Ben Carson or Donald Trump is saying about Muslim databases and comparing refugees to rabid dogs; I know that many of them are shocked and surprised because the media did nothing to expand our worldview nor did we do anything to seek out that information. We have been spoon feed far too long. We invaded Iraq under false pretenses in 2003 which triggered a series of events that cost millions of people all over that region everything they held dear; these events led to a refugee crisis which in turn lead millions to flee their homeland. Some of them inexorably ended up on our doorstep. But because we have been watching Duck Dynasty and Love and Hip Hop their arrival comes as a complete surprise. So I'm not amazed that we want to turn them away. Why? Because we have been living a dream for so long. An addict's dream where we are high on exceptionalism and braggadocio. We are fully invested in staying asleep. The truth would be too powerful or painful.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Bert Williams: America's first Black superstar in blackface



Bert Williams 1874-1922

"I have never been able to discover that there was anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient -- in America."

Bert Willaims was born Egbert Austin Williams in Nassau, Bahamas before his family moved to New York and then California. Forced to abandon his college study of civil engineering at Stanford University to earn a living, he turned his self-taught musical skills and gift for comic mimicry into a lifelong career. Williams was described by film comedian W. C. Fields (quoted by Ann Charters in Nobody: The Story of Bert Williams ) as "the funniest man I ever saw, and the saddest man I ever knew."

Bert Williams got his start on the musical hall stage in 1892, when he began working at the San Francisco Museum, where someone was needed to sing in front of the curtain while the sets were being changed backstage. In 1893 he joined Martin and Selig's Mastodon Minstrel Show. It was soon thereafter that he began his partnership with George W. Walker, and billing themselves as "Two Real Coons" they went on to become one of the most successful comedy teams of their era. By 1903 their partnership elevated from the vaudeville circuit to Broadway, where their act evolved to full-scale musical comedy. They produced, wrote and starred in In Dahomey (1902), the first Black musical comedy to open on Broadway.
After Walker's death in 1909 from syphilis, Williams joined the shows of Florenz Ziegfeld and starred in the Follies from 1910 to 1919. He created the persona of the "Jonah Man" the unluckiest man in the world, resigned to his fate with rueful self-pity that transcended his color. Williams' trademark character was an expansion of the traditional and simplistic darky role to create a fuller fleshed-out character. Bert introduced a new aspect to the classic dimwit, adding a dimension that audiences applauded not only for its humor but also for its illustration of his talents as an actor. Jonah Man was a dumb coon in appearance only. The man underneath was both dubious and contemplative.

As a single act, Bert Williams was the first black to become a star comedian on Broadway. Shortly after his opening on Broadway, Theatre Magazine called Bert Williams "a vastly funnier man than any white comedian now on the American stage." He was the first Black featured in a Broadway revue and was the first Black actor to join Actor's Equity. In London he played a command performance before King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace.

Through mime, Bert Williams displayed an emotional range that transcended the boisterous performance style of minstrels or the broad physical comedy of vaudeville. Although the performance was comedic, beginning and ending in laughter, it was also dramatic, touching upon his emotional depth. Although Bert played the familiar Jim Crow character, his performance enabled him to step a bit out of the heavy shadow that the stereotype cast.

Williams became the first Black comedian to ever appear in the cinema, debuting on screen in 1914, in Darktown Jubilee. A screening of the independent black film in Brooklyn produced boos, cat-calls, and a near race riot from a white audience who rejected the all-black film. Darktown Jubilee was quickly taken out of circulation by the distributor, Biograph.

In 1916, he produced, directed and starred in A Natural Born Gambler. The film features his most famous pantomime routine, that of a poker player who goes through all the motions of dealing, placing bets and ultimately...losing. His facial expressions and gestures were subtle, in contrast to the standards of the day, and yet more expressive. He was able to convey a wide array of emotions as his character rode the emotional highs and lows of a single hand.

Also in 1916, Bert produced, directed and starred in Fish, about a boy who spends hours digging for worms and wants to spend his afternoon fishing, but when he returns home for his pole he finds chores waiting. He sneaks out on the chores and goes fishing anyway. After he catches a big fish he tries to sell it to one of his neighbors, but the neighbor runs him off. The boy's family catches up with him and drags him back to his chores. At 42, Bert's attempt to portray a "boy" was not well received. Bert was frustrated with the limitations of primitive cinema and Fish was his last film.
Bert Williams continued to play the vaudeville circuit and record songs from his shows for the fledgling recording industry. His phonograph records were more numerous than his films and provided a more extensive view of his talents and abilities. Considered by some to be one of the finest recording stars of the time, he cut seventeen titles during his four-year contract with Columbia Records. While most of his recordings are said to have been “simple parodies of conventional stage humor of the period,” others were more serious songs which showcased his considerable talent.

Bert's most famous vaudeville character was Mr. Nobody, whose sad song would later be sung by everyone from Nina Simone to Johnny Cash.